From “Romeo and Juliet” to “Love Story,” doomed love is one of the great themes of literature and cinema, its heady brew of sex, death, commitment and mortality a time-honored way for teenagers and young adults to process their evolving sense of how those forces will play out in their own lives.
“The Fault in Our Stars” is a terrific addition to that canon — a wise, warm, funny and touching romantic drama about two teenage cancer patients who bond over a shared illness and tough-but-sensitive world views. Sixteen-year-old Hazel (Shailene Woodley) is in stage 4 of her cancer, which has reached her lungs, forcing her to lug an oxygen tank everywhere she goes. Gus (Ansel Elgort), 18, has had his leg amputated, but is now cancer free. “I’m a roller coaster that only goes up, my friend,” he tells the leader of the support group where they meet.
That scene — during which Gus fixes a sustained, unabashedly fascinated stare on Hazel as she uncomfortably averts her gaze — immediately establishes Gus as a charismatic, supremely confident force to be reckoned with. As “The Fault in Our Stars” unfolds, their budding romance reveals inescapable differences between them. He’s an inveterate optimist, believing that life and death have a point and that his purpose on Earth is to leave a bright and burning legacy. Hazel’s more skeptical, if not cynical: She’s far less convinced of things like higher meanings. But as time goes on, it’s clear that her doubt masks an overwhelming concern for those she’ll leave behind, especially her parents (Laura Dern and Sam Trammell). “I’m a grenade,” she says at one point. “One day I’m going to explode, and I feel it’s my responsibility to minimize the casualties.”
Such forthright, unsentimental dialogue is balanced throughout “The Fault in Our Stars” by an irreverent, almost giddy, sense of lightness: Hazel and Gus crack wise over “cancer perks” and Make-A-Wish-type charities, casting mutually knowing glances to each other when Hazel visits Gus and finds his parents’ framed “encouragements” throughout the house. Adapted from John Green’s bestselling novel by screenwriters Scott Neustadter and Michael H. Weber (“(500) Days of Summer” and “The Spectacular Now”), “The Fault in Our Stars” brims with the kind of adolescent goofiness, searching and spiky anger that marked the John Hughes and Cameron Crowe films of another era. But, as Hazel informs the audience at the film’s outset, this story won’t be neatly ended “with an apology and a Peter Gabriel song.”
In fact, and unsurprisingly, the story ends sadly, but also with a soaring sense of emotional fulfillment. At one point, the young couple — chaperoned by Hazel’s eternally bright-eyed mom — visit Amsterdam to conduct a literary treasure hunt revolving around a novel they’re obsessed with. Against that gorgeous backdrop, they get to enjoy the sensual pleasures of budding affection, made all the more vivid by its somber undertones. A visit to Anne Frank’s house at first seems to strike an unnecessarily maudlin and strident tone, but director Josh Boone builds it into something powerful and profound, as Hazel breathlessly climbs the tiny staircases to Frank’s cramped quarters. At that moment, “The Fault in Our Stars” is less about young love than about the heroic moral search for meaning in suffering.
To its credit, “The Fault in Our Stars” never loses sight of the couple at its center, allowing it to transcend its nominal subject (cancer) and become just a great teenage love story. By now Woodley has proven her bona fides in such similarly serious-minded films as “The Descendants” and “The Spectacular Now.” The revelation here is Elgort — last seen playing Woodley’s brother in “Divergent” — who brings real subtlety and ease to a character whose vulnerability can always be felt peeking through the studied bravado. (He is essentially playing a guy playing another guy — in this case, Gus playing the brave, quirky cancer-kid.) They’re an enormously appealing couple, whether they’re joking, fighting, flirting or seeing each other through their most dire moments of distress.
Although “The Fault in Our Stars” takes a few genuinely startling turns — including a breathtakingly cruel encounter with a grouchy supporting character played by Willem Dafoe — the film doesn’t veer too widely from the parameters of tragic melodrama, a formula that Boone handles with sensitivity and restrained good taste. What’s more, it offers its core young audience the bracing, even exhilarating suggestion that love isn’t just about finding someone worth dying for, but someone who makes life worth living. For that alone, “The Fault in Our Stars” achieves that rare feat of eliciting as many cheers as tears.
★ ★ ★
PG-13. At area theaters. Contains thematic elements, some sexuality and brief profanity. 125 minutes